Socks in a Tree

Socks in a Tree

Socks in a Tree 1620 1080 Kevin Stadt

I come home from work to find every sock I own hanging in the branches of a tree in the back yard. No one seems to be home. I call out, peer in the rooms downstairs and then upstairs, but can’t find anyone. We live in my mother-in-law’s farmhouse in the Korean countryside, and I wonder if maybe my in-laws, my wife, or my two toddler sons might be outside.

I push back out through the front door and scan the scene through squinted eyes. Since I grew up in the vast oceans of flat Illinois dirt, the Korean landscape never quite loses its ability to shock me. The sky in the Midwest spreads out so vast, the land so featureless, that Korean terrain strikes my eyes as uncanny. Mountains block my sight in every direction, crowding up into the blue fall sky with rich tones of garnet, chartreuse, and medallion, as if I stand surrounded by a stadium of jagged granite furred with trees. My mother-in-law’s house rests on the side of one such mountain, and allows a view of the valley that stretches all the way to the Han River at the edge of my eye’s reach. Greenhouses, swaying rice fields, patches of corn and tomatoes and cabbages, trees that fruit apples and apricots and giant, round pears, houses made of brick, houses made of wood, houses made of concrete, houses made of shipping containers, all bound by the thinnest of winding mountain roads—the busy jigsaw patchwork of my wife’s rural home town.

Descending the front steps, I call out, “Hyunju? Boys?” My kids love to play in the dirt. Maybe around the back?

I walk past the vinyl greenhouse, a persimmon tree, a tree with some fruit I don’t even have a word for, a blueberry bush, rows of bok choy and kale and romaine, all before getting to the back yard. A green bus chugs past up the mountain, and for a brief moment a handful of wrinkled Korean faces stare at the white foreigner with blue eyes, a beard, and tattoos before they disappear, the rumble of the engine echoing after them. As I round the corner to the back, I peer into the dirt-floor shed, a structure hobbled together from random bits of wood and mismatched sheet metal lashed with rope and extending out from a rusted shipping container. Bouquets of garlic hang from the ceiling to dry, fat sacks with labels I can’t read lay in stacks, and an outdoor refrigerating unit the size of a small room hums and clicks.

Then one of the trees next to the shed catches my eye. White somethings punctuate the black boughs, and for a moment my mind struggles to understand what it’s looking at. I scrunch up my face and step closer, cocking my head. I reach the tree and stare, groping for an explanation.

Every sock I own is in this tree.

“Wait…what the hell is this?” I cast a glance around as if an answer might present itself. My brain works to come up with the scenario that explains why every sock I have except the ones I’m wearing are in this tree. Ghosts? Aliens? Some kind of freak weather event?

I hear a car pull into the driveway out front, so I head that way. My wife, Hyunju, emerges from her Hyundai and waves. She smiles, hugs me, and says, “You’re home already! How was your day?”

She’s already climbing the stairs up to the house, and I trail behind. “Good. Where are the boys?”

“My mom took them with her to the neighbor’s.”

“I…uh…do you know…” The sequence of words feels ridiculous coming out of my mouth. For an instant I wonder if this is the first time this sentence has ever been spoken in English. “Do you know why all my socks are in a tree?”

I’ve followed her into the kitchen, and she’s filling a glass of water. Without missing a beat or acknowledging anything strange in the situation she says, “My mom was going through your underwear drawer while you were at work. She thought your socks were dingy, so she hand washed all of them.”

And there it is. While one part of me rejoices that I’m not losing my mind and did, in fact, see all my socks in a tree, another part of me begins to burn at the thought of someone rummaging through my dresser in my absence and without my consent.

On Korean television these days, reality shows that showcase the lives of foreigners have become popular. A common theme that crops up among foreigners who have Korean mothers-in-law is the same one I find in the boughs of the tree out back—an utterly different idea of boundaries.

My mother-in-law doesn’t think twice about going through my things while I’m gone, and what’s more she wouldn’t even imagine hiding it. When my wife and I moved back to Korea after spending some years going to school in the states, we arrived at my mother-in-law’s house and I dragged my luggage in. My wife’s mother sat in the middle of the suitcases on the floor, opened one up—mine—and rummaged through the contents.

“Wait, no, that’s my…” But my wife cut me off with a sharp look and a shake of her head, shutting down my objection. With my mouth hanging open, I just sat there and watched my mother-in-law dig through my suitcase. She pulled out the contents one by one, holding them in the air for examination, occasionally laughing and commenting on them with words I couldn’t understand.

But the socks in the tree also reflect the other side of my mother-in-law, the part that’s often been too easy for me to overlook in my exasperation over these sticky cultural differences. This woman has accepted me, fully, totally, even though I’m a foreigner. Many older Korean parents would never have allowed their daughter to marry an American, much less embrace him. This woman loaned us money when we got to Korea, when I was broke coming off years of being a poor graduate student. This woman helps us raise our children, feeding and bathing and loving them while my wife and I work.

She took every sock I own and squatted over a tub and scrubbed each one over and over with her own two hands, after hours of working out in the field doing hard labor, and then she placed them on the branches of a tree she planted herself in the back yard years ago, where they can dry in the afternoon sun and the clean breeze coming off the mountain.

As the sun lowers, my mother-in-law collects the socks from the tree. She objects adamantly when I try to help, as if the notion of me putting my socks away were a dangerous form of madness. She sits in the middle of the living room floor and slowly, with great care, matches each sock with its mate and folds them reverently.

And they once again sit in my drawer, impossibly soft and white.

Header photograph © Melody Couch.

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